Tag Archives: man

In the Image of God

And yet there is something in the world that the Bible does regard as a symbol of God. It is not a temple nor a tree, it is not a statue nor a star. The symbol of God is man, every man. God created man in His image (Tselem), in His likeness (Demuth). How significant is the fact that the term tselem which is frequently used in a damnatory sense for a man-made image of God, as well as the term demuth, of which Isaiah claims (40:18), no demuth or likeness can be applied to God — are employed in denoting man as an image and likeness of God.

-Abraham Joshua Heschel
from “Man the Symbol of God,” p.124
Man’s Quest for God

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.

Colossians 1:15 (NASB)

Yes, I know. They don’t quite match. Heschel is talking about every human being as being made in the image (tselem) of God, even though that Hebrew word is typically used to describe detestable man-made images of gods. I’m hardly a language expert, so I have to wonder if Paul in calling Yeshua (Jesus) the “image of the invisible God” was thinking of the same word for “image” as Heschel mentions.

The reason I bring this up is that one of the more traditional Jewish arguments against Jesus-worship is that we are worshiping an “image” based on Colossians 1:15. Yet if each individual human being in general can be considered a symbol for and image of God, how much more can Messiah, the unique human presence on Earth, the mediator of the New Covenant, be considered the symbol for and image of God?

Kind of makes you wonder.

For He spoke, and it was done; He commanded, and it stood fast.

Psalm 33:9

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through Him, and apart from Him nothing came into being that has come into being.

And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth.

John 1:1-3, 14

It is understood that God actually “spoke” the world into existence with His Word. In human terms, our words emanate from us, we generate speech and it exits our mouths. If others are around us, they can hear what we say. So I can only imagine that the Word emanates from God, but in His case, His Word does so much more than just make sound or even language.

I really don’t have that much more to say on the topic. I’m wrapping up the last few notes I took while reading Heschel’s book (I have to get it back to the library) and wanted to make sure I didn’t lose track of the information. It’s part of my continuing process of trying to “get a handle” on the nature of Messiah and also on the nature of man.

And in this sense, Hillel characterized the body as an “icon” of God, as it were, and considered keeping clean one’s own body an act of reverence for its Creator (citing Leviticus Rabba 34, 3; also see Midrash Tehillim, 103).

-Heschel, ibid

And what is more, Biblical piety may be expressed in the form of a supreme imperative: Treat yourself as a symbol of God. In the light of this imperative we can understand the meaning of that astounding commandment: “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy” (Leviticus 19:2).

-ibid, p.126

This may add some dimension to another equally astounding commandment:

Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

Matthew 5:48

To be holy and perfect because our Father in Heaven is holy and perfect. It doesn’t seem like such a tall order if we are to consider ourselves symbols for God and images of God. The “Word became flesh” and sojourned among us so that he could be perfectly human and yet the perfect image of God, a living example, our High Priest, but only in the Heavenly Court, who was tempted but did not sin.

Not that we can perfectly refrain from sinning ourselves, but we can be better symbols and images of our God, just as the Master illustrated.

But all may be guided by the words of the Baal Shem: If a man has beheld evil, he may know that it was shown to him in order that he learn his own guilt and repent; for what is shown to him is also within him.

from “The Meaning of this Hour,” p.148

If what we are shown is also within us, what if we’re shown good and not evil? What if we’re shown a perfect symbol and image of God in seeming contrast to our own imperfection as symbols and images? If being shown evil teaches us to repent, shouldn’t being shown good inspire us to draw nearer to the Source of that good?

From that time Jesus began to preach and say, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”

Matthew 4:17

Inner lightI don’t think we can accept any longer the argument that Yeshua is not worthy of glory, honor, and devotion because he is considered the “image” of God, because we too are “images”. Each human being is, in some sense, representative of our Creator, and in a greater sense, Messiah is even more representative. How all this works is highly mystical and as such, I can’t explain it, but the “imagery” (pun intended) is compelling.

Our Master is the living embodiment, encased in flesh and blood, of what we should be or at least of what we should be attempting to be: holy and perfect representations of our Creator in human bodies. To do that, we must be in a constant state of repentance before God for nothing that is holy is compatible with sin.

Good Shabbos.

Seeking Out a Greater Imagination

“Do not seek to follow in the footsteps of the wise. Seek what they sought.”

-Matsuo Basho

Rabbi Sholom Ber of Lubavitch used to say that if the hedonists would know the ecstasy of mystic union, they would instantly drop all their worldly pleasures and chase after it.

It is not just pleasure. It is the source of all pleasures.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson

I recently had a discussion with an (apparent) atheist in the comments section of one of my blog posts. As with many other Christian/Atheist discussions on the web, he found Christianity wanting due to its lack of morality. That generally means “lack of morality” as progressive secular humanism defines the term (and the definition tends to shift over time). But is the sole reason for someone to become a person of faith or a person of faithlessness to gain a sense of morality and ethics?

Probably not. At its core, I think a person selects one system of philosophy or theology over another in an attempt to seek a reason for existence. Rabbi David Hartman in his book A Living Covenant: The Innovative Spirit in Traditional Judaism (chapter 9) says it this way:

As history has shown, the human being is not only a fact-seeking animal, but equally and possibly more so, a value-hungry individual seeking direction and significance in life. We hunger for a frame of reference that orders and orients everyday existence into some meaningful pattern. In spite of the extreme importance of facts, their range does not exhaust the sources from which one constructs a vision of life that gives meaning and direction to existence.

Beyond the quest to determine the moral relativity of right and wrong, and even beyond the desire to understand the nature of the universe, its origins and its development, is the overwhelming desire of human beings to seek out and discover themselves. This is perhaps the greatest mystery within our awareness, greater than the origin of life and greater than the scope of the cosmos.

Who are we? Why are we here? Is this all there is? Is there something more?

I was recently watching the first part of a two-part episode of Star Trek: Voyager called “Scorpion”. The starship Voyager was about to enter an area of space dominated by the Borg, which is a highly malevolent cybernetic race and mortal enemies of the Federation. It is the only path Voyager can take to make it back to the Alpha Quadrant and home.

The Borg are under attack by an equally malevolent race of beings from a realm outside our universe who are referred to only as “species 8472.” The destruction caused by the war between the Borg and species 8472 is vast and multiple star systems have been destroyed in its wake. If Captain Kathryn Janeway (played by Kate Mulgrew) orders Voyager to go forward, the ship and everyone on board will be annihilated. If she turns the ship around to ensure everyone’s safety, she must admit that she will never get her crew home. She’s trapped in an endless loop of guilt and remorse, because it was her decision to save an alien race that stranded the Voyager crew over 70,000 light years away from home nearly four years ago.

As a diversion, Janeway had previously programmed a holodeck simulation of Leonardo da Vinci (played by the acclaimed British actor John Rhys-Davies) and his workshop environment. Janeway takes on the role of Master da Vinci’s student in order to relax, work on various art projects, and be inspired by a holographic replica of one of history’s most innovative creators. In the throes of despair, as Voyager is poised to either move forward to destruction or turn back in defeat, Janeway makes a midnight visit to the Master’s studio seeking a solution she cannot find within the limits of her own resources.

She finds da Vinci sitting in his darkened studio, softly illuminated by dozens of candles, staring at light and shadow as they play upon a blank wall. Janeway sits with him and asks him what he sees. da Vinci (Rhys-Davies) responds:

A flock of starlings; the leaves of an oak; a horse’s tail; a thief, with a noose around his neck… Uh… And a wall, with the candlelight reflecting on it. There are times, Katarina, when I find myself transfixed by a shadow on the wall, or the splashing of water against a stone. I stare at it, the hours pass, the world around me drops away, replaced by worlds being created and destroyed by my imagination. A way to focus the mind.

Out of desperation, with all other options exhausted, Janeway turns to this computer generated simulation of one of the world’s finest minds and imaginations and opens her soul to him.

There’s a path before me – the only way home. And on either side, mortal enemies bent on destroying each other. If I attempt to pass through them, I’ll be destroyed as well. But if I turn around – that would end all hope of ever getting home. And no matter how much I try to focus my mind, I can’t see an alternative.

Then da Vinci replies in a way I found absolutely fascinating, especially since Janeway has always been played as a pragmatic atheist (and after all, she programmed da Vinci).

When one’s imagination cannot provide an answer, one must seek out a greater imagination. There are times when even I find myself kneeling in prayer.

I’m sorry to take you through a mini-tour of one of my favorite Voyager stories (especially if you’re not a Star Trek fan) but this is the point I was building up to. This is what we as human beings are seeking; a greater imagination. I don’t mean one that we can possess, but something beyond ourselves and our reality. Janeway and Voyager are exploring the galaxy, or a non-trivial part of it, as they attempt to travel 70,000 light years from the Delta Quadrant back to the Alpha Quadrant and Earth, but the real journey; the human journey is far more wondrous and vast.

The human journey is the attempt to travel beyond the limits of observation, science, and the very conceptualization of a physical and temporal reality and to find what lies beyond, which must surely be a greater creative imagination than ours and the One who is responsible for everything we now experience.

On a website called The God Debates, a discussion on a cause for the universe’s existence is going on (as I write this). I seriously doubt that the matter will be resolved to everyone’s satisfaction, but the need to have this discussion is completely human and shows us how much we need to seek out “a greater imagination.” An even more unusual example of this is a story at Jewish Ideas Daily called Disturbing the Universe. This is Kabbalah scholar Daniel Matt’s review of cosmologist Lawrence M. Krauss’s new book, A Universe from Nothing: why There Is Something Rather Than Nothing. In the same article, Matt reviews Alan Lightman’s new novel Mr g: A Novel About the Creation. An article where a Kabbalah scholar reviews both a very serious book on cosmology and a seemingly light-hearted but compelling work of fiction on God and Creation? Definitely worth a read.

However, why does one person seek the limits of the universe in a microscope, a telescope, in a chemistry class, in an archaeological dig, or using the cutting-edge tools of physicists? Why does another person seek to escape the limits of the universe entirely and encounter the infinite wonder that lies beyond the scope of the mechanisms mankind feebly constructs with flesh and blood hands?

Maybe sub-atomic particles and a vast, expanding universe are the only wonders that exist, but I certainly hope not. If it is true that this is all there is and there is nothing more, then everything mysterious, wonderful, and astounding about our existence is potentially within man’s grasp and one day, there will be no more mysteries. The universe will be “solved” and man will reach the end of his own adventure and become his own “god” (if he hasn’t already).

But in seeking God, man longs to go beyond the possible and to engage a mystery that can never be solved. But that’s the greatness of spiritual man: the need, the desire, and drive to seek out the impossible and to experience even the briefest glimpse of the unseeable, the untouchable, the unknowable.

In seeking God, man approaches the real purpose of his being. This is what pushes us past the barriers of despair, loneliness, hardship, and torture. This is why man endures. This is why man achieves. Without the search for God, man’s labors are no more significant than an ant pushing a bread crumb across a dirt lot, regardless of the illusion of “greatness” we bestow upon ourselves.

Some abandon the covenant after the death of a single loved one, but others retain belief in God’s love for and commitment to themselves despite having lost their whole family in the Holocaust. One human being leaves Auschwitz an atheist and another as a person whose belief has grown stronger.


I suppose there are many cynical explanations for why a person who has suffered incredible horrors would retain a faith in God and even increase that faith in the shadow of Auschwitz, or a dying child, or a body shattered in war. Some more “enlightened” individuals accuse us of needing a “crutch” as if atheism is far more courageous and noble. But I don’t think it’s a matter of courage and nobility, and I can’t really say what it is that causes one person to deny God and another to seek him out, even sometimes at the cost of his own life.

The best I can see is that, like John Rhys-Davies’s version of Leonardo da Vinci, even when it seems to defy the person we think we are, we absolutely need to seek out a greater imagination than our own. We find ourselves seeking it and Him by kneeling in prayer.

It is only God who makes it possible for a human being to search for that which exists in a place no man can reach or touch or see. But that’s where we will find Him…and us.


To Desecrate What is Holy

Chasam Sofer also writes that it is obvious that one does not violate the prohibition against saying God’s Name in vain unless he pronounces the Name but writing God’s Name does not violate a prohibition. He adds that if one examines our Gemara carefully he will realize that the prohibition against cursing someone with the Name of God and the prohibition against taking a false oath with the Name of God are subsets of the prohibition of saying God’s Name in vain.

Daf Yomi Digest
Halacha Highlight
“Writing God’s Name in vain”
Temurah 4

What is the purpose?

The One Above desires to dwell in things below.

Meaning that a breath of G-dly life descends below and dresses itself in a body and human person, and this body and person negate and conceal the light of this G-dly soul…yet nevertheless, the soul purifies and elevates the body, the person and even her share of the world.

And what is the reason behind this purpose?

There is none.

It transcends reason; it is the place from which all reason is born.

And so it is unbounded and all-consuming. For it is a desire of the Essence.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
—from the Rebbe’s discussions of his father-in-law’s last discourse.

The concepts of holiness and respect for God vary between Christian and Jewish thought. When I used to attend a church, I heard God referred to in the most casual and intimate manner, as if God were nothing more than a super-amplified grandfather. People, admittedly in need of comfort, described themselves as if they were sitting on God’s lap and cuddling up with Him. Even as a brand new Christian all those years ago, I found myself uncomfortable with the image.

Now I know why.

I’m sure some of you reading my quote from the daf on Temurah 4 probably think the Jewish people overdo this “respect” thing a little, and yet, if we could have stood at the foot of Mt. Sinai on that day when the thunder of His voice shook the ground, and if we could have seen the fire and the smoke, and trembled at the sound of the great shofar, would we still think of God as a “cuddly grandfather?”

I’m not saying we should not take comfort in God, but only that we should remember that He is not a man, not even a great man, and we cannot treat Him as such.

The comfort we can take is that, as Rabbi Freeman cites of the Rebbe’s discourse, the “One Above desires to dwell in things below.” From this, we who are Christians see God’s desire to dwell in things below” ultimately expressed here:

The word was made flesh and dwelled in our midst. We have beheld his glory, like the glory of a father’s only son, great in kindness and truth. –John 1:14 (DHE Gospels)

This is our greatest comfort, that in some mysterious and mystic way, an aspect of the One, has been able to dwell among men, as the Divine Presence dwelled within the Mishkan and among the Children of Israel. A tent is not God cannot contain God anymore than the body of a man is God can contain the infinite Essence, and yet in some inexplicable fashion, “we have beheld his glory.”

We also learn why the Jewish people revere the Torah, not merely as a scroll or a holy icon, but as the One, who again has dwelled “in things below.”

When God began to create heaven and earth – the earth being unformed and void, with darkness over the surface of the deep and a wind from God sweeping over the water –Genesis 1:1-2 (JPS Tanakh)

In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God. –John 1:1 (DHE Gospels)

But God’s holiness is not limited, and just as Judaism believes that each Jew is a receptacle for the Divine Presence and just as Christianity embraces the fact that all believers have received the Holy Spirit within us, so we understand together, the words of the Rebbe “that a breath of G-dly life descends below and dresses itself in a body and human person.”

That means each one of us is holy and sacred. This lesson is understood, in some manner, even among secular people, and even in the realm of fiction, where perhaps it’s easier for a worldly and progressive humanity to express such spiritual thoughts.

Lakanta: What do you think is sacred to us here?
Wesley Crusher: Maybe the necklace you’re wearing? The designs on the walls?
Lakanta: Everything is sacred to us – the buildings, the food, the sky, the dirt beneath your feet – and you. Whether you believe in your spirit or not, we believe in it. You are a sacred person here, Wesley.
Wesley Crusher: I think that’s the first time anyone’s used that particular word to describe me.
Lakanta: You must treat yourself with respect. To do otherwise is to desecrate something that is holy.
Wesley Crusher: Is that what you think I’ve been doing?
Lakanta: Only you can decide that.
Wesley Crusher: I guess I haven’t had a lot of respect for myself lately.

-from the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode
Journey’s End

Not only do I think it has become common among the people of faith to treat God all too casually and without respect, I think we also have gotten into the habit of treating each other and ourselves in the same way. And as we see from this important lesson from a rather unusual source, if we don’t treat each other and ourselves with respect, just as we don’t treat God with respect, how much more so do we desecrate something and someone that is holy?